"Justice Thomas Emerges As Surprising Ally for Progressives"


That quote comes from Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel for the left-wing Constitutional Accountability Center. She's referring to last week's unanimous Supreme Court decision in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., where the Court ruled that the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act does not trump a more restrictive California requirement that rear car seats have both lap and shoulder seat belts (federal law required only lap belts in rear seats). Here's how Wydra put it:

Mazda's request to displace state consumer-safety laws and remedies through "federal preemption" doctrine was squarely rejected by the Court.  But while it wasn't terribly surprising that the Court arrived at the correct result in Williamson, some observers might be surprised that it is Justice Clarence Thomas, in this case, whose concurring opinion explains how the Constitution establishes a system of federalism that preserves the right of states to protect the health and safety of their citizens.

This isn't the first time Thomas' regulatory federalism has earned praised from progressives. In Wyeth v. Levine (2009), Thomas concurred with Justice John Paul Stevens' 6-3 decision which held that federal law did not preempt a state failure-to-warn lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company even though the drug warning label in question was approved by the Federal Drug Administration. The dissenting votes in that case came from Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. In other words, Thomas isn't taking marching orders from anybody, on or off the Court. That's something to keep in mind the next time some ignorant fool attacks Thomas' intelligence or judicial independence.

NEXT: The Medicaid Wrecking Ball

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This isn’t the first time Thomas’ regulatory federalism has earned praised from progressives.

    Only when his decisions favor them. When he eschews expedient pragmatism in decisions not found palatable to Progressives, then he becomes the target of the most virulent scorn one can receive in this world.

    1. I am all confused now. Here I was thinking that Thomas was Scalia’s well-coiffed sockpuppet and could only vote the way Big Tony and his magic fingers let him.

      1. No, no, Thomas is a lawn jockey, duuuuuh.

  2. There are some issues here to keep in mind. States have something the federal government, in theory, lacks. General police power. Which means, in essence, that they have much broader powers than the federal government within their jurisdictions (leaving aside for the moment the restrictions of the various state constitutions).

    1. Even I, a simple engineer, know that you say “in theory” when reality is different. In practice, the feds have acquired nearly every police power they aren’t supposed to have.

      1. I hear you and mostly agree, but as a matter of Constitutional law, this is still true. If the mandate is struck down, for instance, certain limits on the Commerce Clause will be vaguely visible.

    2. States have something the federal government, in theory, lacks. General police power.

      Uh, yeah, we’re working on that…

  3. I’m not a big fan of this states rights crap. I would have no problem with the federal government overriding state authority, if the federal government was kept to its legitimate functions.

    1. Illogical . . . Illogical . . . Norman, coordinate . . .

    2. Wow. Try thinking a bit harder and maybe you’ll realize how stupid your statement is.

    3. There is no such thing as states rights. Only people have rights.

      States have powers. And the constitution clearly splits them between the feds and the states, and hammers it home with the 10th amendment.

    4. Sorry, Colonel, the legitimate functions of the feds (national defense, post office, patents, and the dozen or so other) are the only place where they have authority. Ergo, they can not constitutionally override state authority in the myriad other liberties or authorities that are recognizes as being of the people, or the states.

  4. Given the precedent set by the CARB rules, I can’t imagine why Mazda thought they had a case.

  5. Illogical . . . Illogical . . . Norman, coordinate . . .

  6. It’s racist of you to make me think “I pity the ignorant fools,” while reading this.

  7. Sad to see Thomas endorse the one-way ratchet of more government control.

    States can add more restrictive requirements on top of federal requirements. States cannot, however, substitute less restrictive requirements. The trend is always in the same direction: MOAR CONTROL!

    1. It’s a tag-team match of 800 and 300 pound gorillas against little old us.

    2. Sad to see Thomas endorse the one-way ratchet of more government control.

      Did you read his opinion in this case? He’s not really discussing state-level versus federal-level regulation, the way that the majority did. He simply notes that the law in question has the phrase “[c]ompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law.”

      Based on that phrase in the law, it’s an easy decision for him, the state level common-law tort can proceed. He says that the majority has a complicated argument about “freewheeling, extratextual, and broad evaluatio[n] of the ‘purposes and objectives'” of the law in deciding preemption, and that “[t]he majority’s purposes-and-objectives pre-emption analysis displays the inherent constitutional problem with the doctrine.”

      In other words, the law has a pretty explicit statement that it doesn’t preempt torts, but the rest of the Court has read that out of the law by saying that state level torts are preempted except where they’re not, based on the federal government’s intentions.

      1. Did you read his opinion in this case?

        No. Not yet, anyway. I guess I’ll have to.

        1. Read the opinion? Heck, since when is actually reading the article or opinion or whatever a pre-requisite for posting a rant about it?

          Shit, I thought that’s how we were supposed to do it here….

        2. Although he is not a complete libertarian, Thomas’s actions/decisions once again prove that he is the most consistent libertarian leaning judge on the court.

          R C Dean, I’ve come to respect your opinions on this site. I’ll be interested in what you have to say after reading the opinions.

    3. This is what I’m talking about.

  8. I have become convinced in the past couple years that Thomas really is the best ally we’ve got on the SCOTUS – which of course isn’t saying much. But his concurrence in McDonald v. Chicago was quite good – he seems to be the sole justice up there who pretty much gets it regarding the original understanding of how the Constitution is supposed to work.

    I was highly disappointed, however, that he dissented in Safford v. Redding. He evidently didn’t have much of a problem with school officials strip-searching a 13 year-old female honor student without notifying or getting permission from her parents. I still can’t understand where he’s coming from with that one.

    1. Drugs are bad, mkay?

    2. I don’t really like his vote in that one either, but I don’t think it was really all that complicated. The state is acting in loco parentis, so if a parent would have the right to strip search their own kind because they might have drugs, then so would the school. That’s the whole deal at least how I remember reading it. If you don’t like it, don’t transfer your parental power to state beauracracy.

      1. kindkid

      2. I don’t like the outcome either, but I think Thomas’s decision was the correct one.

        As a matter of policy, and perhaps even state law if necessary, a school should not be strip searching students – they should be calling the parents and sending the kid home whenever they think a kid is hiding something dangerous to other kids.

        The state should decline to exercise certain in loco parentis powers, and I’d put strip searching among them.

    3. Justice Thomas is the only guy who just applies the law.

      Scalia talks a good game, but after Gonzales v. Raich and Wyeth v. Levine, I don’t know how anyone can take his talk seriously. When federalism is inconvenient to the outcome Scalia desires, out the window it goes.

  9. Justice Thomas has accurately interpreted the Constitution, and upheld the 9th and 10th Amendments. It’s pretty cut and dry. The Progressives may try to spin it in their favor, but that’s not a true representation of his opinion.

    1. I think it is a good thing for Progressives to see that Federalism has an upside for the values they profess.

  10. Ms. Wydra has just guaranteed that she’ll never appear on msnbc or Olbermann’s new network.

    Or npr.

  11. “…some observers might be surprised that it is Justice Clarence Thomas,…”

    Only if you decide what is a good and bad decision base on who wins and loses and not on consistant constitutional principles. When liberals emphasize “empathy” as a desirable trait in judges, they are saying they are more interested in outcomes. They seem genuinely surprised when a so-called conservative justice applies reason and goes against a petitioner someone on the right is theoretically supposed to favor.

  12. So the link that the words “ignorant fool” was too. Was an article that actually showed how little respect Thomas and others have for impartiality and the appearance of favoritism if not outright favoritism. The author of the article shows his bias when using those words for the link.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.